Home Land War Battlefields British tactics during and after the Somme battle

British tactics during and after the Somme battle

'The British Army learned its lesson the hard way, during the middle part of the Somme battle and, for the rest of the war, was the best army in the field.'

Charles Carrington
'Soldier from the wars returning' (Hutchinson, 1965)

The most painful lesson to be learned from the early Somme battle engagements was that very close co-operation was necessary between infantry and artillery. Nothing could replace meticulous preparation. The problems with artillery by 1916 included defective shells, the movement of guns during a battle to a new position and the difficulties of accurate gun laying. These problems were not solved immediately, but by 1917 they were less likely to cause a disaster. Developments in rifle practice, bayonet charges and bombing parties came and went as different commanders favoured new variations on old themes.

Examples can be chosen from a variety of attacks in July 1916: The attack on the Quadrangle support trench (between Contalmaison and Mametz wood) by the 12th Manchesters on July 7th is a typical case. Instead of any serious preparation, the battalion HQ received orders to attack at 7.26 a.m. (34 minutes before the artillery bombardment of the German front line was to 'lift'). The battalion had a quarter of a mile to cover when they should have been waiting in No Mans Land. Of 840 men who attacked that morning, 256 survived.

The success of the battle for the Bazentin Ridge (14th - 15th July) is better known. 22,000 men advanced at 3.25 a.m. (having waited in No Mans Land 500 yards from the German front Line) after a minimal (5 minute) preliminary barrage. All major objectives were taken with minor losses.

My third example shows that the lesson at Bazentin Ridge was not immediately learned: The 10th Royal Fusiliers attack at Pozieres (July 15th) was brought forward to 9.00 a.m. (by ½ an hour) without notice. The men moved up to the front line without being fully briefed. Advancing at a slow walk, the men marched into accurate machine gun fire and the battalion lost 245 men and 11 officers (killed, wounded or missing) within minutes.

The advances in artillery following the Somme battle were essential for all future engagements. First the powder used to fill the High Explosive shells used from July onwards: this was improved, as was the number of HE shells available for the initial bombardment for any attack. By 1917, the powder in these shells was so efficient that the concussion caused to bystanders was so severe that it caused a dire effect on the nervous system. The bursting shell could cause a form of metal paralysis in the German soldiers, sometimes resulting in a physical deformity. This was labelled shell shock by medical teams on both sides.

A second major improvement was the ability to fire accurately without either an observer or pre-registration. This was possible after a comprehensive survey was carried out of the German front line by the use of aerial photography both before and during a major offensive. This, along with sound ranging (the speciality of Captain 'Willi' Bragg, Noble Laureate 1915 for X-ray crystallography and later Sir Laurence Bragg) allowed any number of enemy guns firing to be monitored so that counter battery offensives could be effective.

A third improvement was the 106 percussion fuse for the shells used for fire cutting (both HE and shrapnel). The 106 fuse would ensure that the shell detonated on impact with the ground before it had dug itself into the earth.

The barrage itself was improved: a creeping barrage was a vital innovation, which had evolved before the Somme battles of 1916. But now it became an essential part of battle tactics. First, it represented a decisive shift from 'destructive' fire to 'neutralising' fire. Now the front line defenders were blinded, dazzled and demoralised (and hence easily defeated) rather than killed. Second, combined with a heavy preliminary destructive phase, false starts using smoke and cloud gas, a creeping barrage could advance troops rapidly across No Man's Land into the enemy trenches. Advances in counter battery fire protected the men from German fire. From 1917 onwards, well-planned attacks involving close co-operation between artillery and infantry were surprisingly successful.

Any mention of battle tactics resulting from the battle of the Somme would be incomplete without a mention of the tank. Unfortunately, advances in the design and use of the tank were few and slow in coming until late in 1917.

The tank's debut at Flers (September 1916) raised the morale of the troops in the field and was welcome news for the public at home. But, too few were available and, those that were, were very unreliable. At Bullecourt (April 1917), their failure to arrive to join the troops on time resulted in a delay of 24 hours of the actual attack. The tanks quickly suffered a 100% casualty rate and this affected the Australian attitude to tank warfare for over a year. At Messines (June 1917) and Passchendaele (August 1917), the tanks were worse than useless. They attracted enemy shells and were swallowed up by the mud during evasive action. The German anti-tank tactic was to disable the leading vehicle and pick off the following tanks if they were unable to make the dreadful choice of attempting to drive around the disabled vehicle.

Tank warfare only came into 'its own' at Cambrai (November 1917), Le Hamel (June 1918) and Amiens (August 1918) when they were available in sufficient numbers and were sufficiently reliable to drive through the German front line. But they were still only used as part of a battle strategy, which involved an infantry advance.

The stationary services (SS) brought out two vitally important manuals as a result of the Somme offensive: the 60 page SS 135 'Instructions for the Training of Divisions for Offensive Action' (December 1916) and the 15 page SS143 'Instructions for the Training of Platoons for Offensive Action' (February 1917).

SS135 stated that offensives should start with a creeping barrage closely followed by the assault troops, snipers, Lewis guns and Stokes guns which should work together for mopping up enemy positions, especially neutralising machine gun positions.

SS143 stated that each platoon should be a self-contained unit, which is divided into a small platoon HQ plus four fighting sections. Each section had its own speciality: bomb throwers, a Lewis gun (with ammunitions drums and 'servants'), riflemen (with a sniper and scout) and a battery of rifle-grenades (known as the 'infantry's howitzers').

SS143 marked a vital change from the tactics of the Victorian Era involving riflemen advancing in lines, to a modern approach to the advances in technology involving the machine gun and trenches.

How else can we view the effective directors of set-piece attacks in 1917 or of the mobile operations during the Hundred Days in 1918? It perhaps took far longer than it ought to have done but tactical success could normally be guaranteed for any commander who prepared and co-ordinated all sections under his plan.

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Last Updated ( Sunday, 14 February 2010 20:08 )  

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